Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, and the most honorable prayer and peace be upon the master of the first and the last, our master, Muhammad, the chosen, the trustworthy, and upon his pious and pure family, his faithful companions, and those who followed them in goodness until the Day of Judgment, may Allah Almighty be pleased with them all.
This question of how to evaluate the claims of real and self-proclaimed Islamic scholars is a very important one. It is related to the three categories of Muslims that our scholars put forth a long time ago. These categories are:
- A scholar: a person that can make verdicts of Islamic jurisprudence
And has the ability to derive new verdicts in accordance to new incidents that happen in their time. This category includes only few individuals in the Muslim community today.
- A learner: a person that is in the process of study and education. He/she consults scholars and reads general books to gain knowledge. This person has no ability to derive new verdicts like the first category. This category includes a good amount of the Muslim community in the world.
- Unlearned: a person that is not interested in reading religious books and depends entirely on asking scholars to know the Islamic verdicts pertaining to anything he faces in his life. This category can be regarded, more or less, as the majority of the Muslim community in the world.
The third category does not mean that this person is ignorant or illiterate, it is specifically referring to any person who is not interested in religious studies, but he or she might be a scientist in certain scientific field, a doctor or an engineer, even but not equipped to discern on religious verdicts.
In regards to seeking knowledge, the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, said: “Lo! Indeed the world is cursed. What is in it is cursed, except for remembrance of Allah, what is conducive to that, the knowledgeable person and the learning person” (Al-Tirmithi, book 36, hadith 19). Abdullah Bin Mas’ud, may Allah be pleased with him, said: “Be a scholar or a learner, and do not be a yes-man in between” (Mushkil al-athar).
Now, it might be an easy task to recognize the second and third categories of persons. The important question is: “how can the second and third category recognize a person to who is a scholar, i.e. a first category, in order to ask him about religious matters?
This task might have been an easy task in the past, as people were less able to travel and communicate over long distances like we can today with the Internet and people knew enough about each other that those who were righteous were known as such and those who were ignorant would find it hard to claim to have knowledge while being ignorant. Scholars, on the other hand were well known for their years of study, righteous reputations and scientific contributions. Today, however when we know each other less well and communicate across a global community many of the third category of ignorant allege to be the first category of scholars!
There are many reasons for that, the first might be the abundance of and easy access to information available today that allow an ordinary untrained person to be able to make the claim of being a scholar. The second reason includes the many intellectual and moral questions and pressures faced by Muslims today due to globalization. These include the many false accusations made about Islam that Muslims face on a daily basis, such as the offensive criticisms of the holy texts in social media and accusations that Islam is a violent religion. Likewise, there is the widespread normalization of major sins such as adultery, promiscuity and sodomy in modern civilization that are confusing especially bearing in mind the scientific advances in the civilized world compared to the Muslim world. When there are so many different lifestyles being promoted and questions to be answered, self-styled scholars may try to answer them especially if they wish to attract attention, obtain power and gain the respect a person obtains from people when they acknowledge him/her as a scholar.
While anyone these days has access to the sacred scriptures of Islam as they are posted all over the internet, those who are not scholars do not know how to interpret them in terms of time and place that they refer to and to understand them within the context of all the holy teachings of our religion. Instead, these impostors can do nothing scholarly in fact but bring sacred texts from the Qur’an or from the Sunnah that apparently support their claims which they have no basis to be making. Scholarship is obviously going beyond bringing evidence, regardless of their context, as we shall clearly see later.
Before we delve into listing the Islamic criteria to identify a scholar, I just want to refer to a core issue when trying to identify a scholar, which is an objective issue. A scholar is a person that has the propensity to look into the evidence, analyze them, knowing the timeline of each evidence and last, but not least, deriving a verdict which goes with the overall teachings of Islam.
The Islamic criteria which are used to identify a scholar are objective, not subjective. These criteria can be applied everywhere, anytime. They are:
- A deep understanding of the main objectives of the Islamic shariah (referred to as maqasid in Islamic jurisprudence).
- A full knowledge of the Book of Allah Almighty and the rulings contained in its ayahs, its absolute and similar, its general and in particular, and its summary and explanatory.
- A real mastery of the various methods of extrapolation and deduction (referred to as ‘istinbat’ in Islamic jurisprudence).
- A full mastery of Arabic, which enables him to understand the Qur’an and Sunnah correctly and particularly the verses and hadiths that contain verdicts and rulings.
- A real mastery of logic, especially the branch of analogy (referred to as ‘qiyas’ is Islamic jurisprudence). This branch specifically grants the scholar the ability to derive new rulings from the same sacred texts, mainly the Qur’an and Sunnah.
- Knowledge of historical, social, and political context of the rulings derived before him. This knowledge grants him the ability to weigh the situation of the people living around him, their traditions and customs when they ask him about different rulings.
- The certification of contemporary scholars upon his knowledge and domination of the above-mentioned criteria. This might be the most important category among them. For this one can be certified by any existing body of scholars. This last thing is so important and makes clear a scholar is not made by sitting behind a computer screen cherry picking versus from the scriptures to support unfounded claims.
In the past the only way to master the Islamic sciences was to study in front of a famous scholar in the traditional way for fifteen years. After that the graduate is subjected to a very hard exam by scholars in his area to make sure that he has mastered the sciences he studied as well as to prove to his teachers that he has the propensity to derive new rulings. This way was called ‘the Ijaza way’. Ijaza is a certificate by a famous scholar that certifies that the person named in it has completed his task of studying the Islamic sciences and therefore he is granted this Ijaza. There is a link of narration included in that Ijaza that relates the student to his teacher through a long chain of narration to Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, and then to angel Gabriel and finally to Allah the Almighty. The scholar, in addition to the conditions listed above, has to have written some literature, i.e. books, articles, research papers, and videos to prove his capacity and scientific ability. In today’s academic study in modern universities this option is not there. Thus to be a true Islamic scholar, not one self educated over the Internet, or certified by a modern university which may or may not even actually follow Islam, you have to be acknowledged by your contemporary traditional scholars that you are a certified scholar.
Impostor scholars can be found abundantly on social media today. They mostly bring sacred texts which are cut out of their context to justify their false opinions. A good example is the so-called scholars of al Qaeda and ISIS. These imposters don’t analyze the texts because they don’t have the scientific ability to do that. Instead they make claims that lead to violence, death, persecution and war and perhaps most importantly to putting themselves and their groups into power where they enrich themselves. Likewise, when they bring other scholars’ opinions they don’t understand their contexts as well. The real scholars are constantly condemning their false opinions by thorough critical articles, research papers and books.
While al Qaeda and ISIS sometimes refer to the real scholars as “palace” scholars because some of those who oppose them are paid by the governments of Saudi Arabia for instance. However, while this criticism is weak because no matter where there pay comes the real scholars have earned through hard work and study their Ijazas and hopefully will call out the lies of terrorist groups that would lead the ordinary people astray.
This article is a mere clarification of how to identify a scholar. I hope it brings some light to people.